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Priest's Slaying Shakes Tijuana

A popular cleric's death, blamed on drug trade, gives the border city a record year for killings.

October 27, 2005|Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writer

TIJUANA — The execution-style killing of a popular priest in an upscale restaurant district here has touched off an outpouring of grief and pushed the homicide rate to record heights.

At a funeral Mass on Wednesday, about 2,000 people mourned the death of Father Luis Velazquez Romero, 52, an outspoken cleric known for his social activism.

He was gunned down Monday morning in his 1993 Ford Thunderbird in a parking lot. Police found six bullet wounds in his head and neck, and his wrists handcuffed behind his back.

Velazquez's death, along with another slaying over the weekend, pushed the homicide toll in the Tijuana area this year past the record of 355 set in 2004, state police officials said.

The wave of violence in this sprawling Mexican border city has set new standards for brazenness. Masked, black-clad gunmen have abducted businessmen from popular restaurants in front of horrified diners. Their bodies usually appear days later, gagged and showing signs of torture. Many merchants are moving across the border to the San Diego area.

Several police officers have also been killed or targeted. Chief Homicide Investigator Francisco Castro Trenti escaped injury in a shootout a few weeks ago.

Police said the motive in the priest's killing was unclear but that the slaying bore the hallmarks of an organized crime hit.

The violent death of Velazquez, the corresponding sensational media coverage and questions about the police investigation have heightened a sense of frustration in this crime-weary city. Thousands have turned out at Masses to mourn the priest, filing into his hillside church to kiss his coffin and touch his white robe.

"This assassination has touched the most sensitive part of our society," said Carlos Medina Amaro, a longtime parishioner. "If they kill a priest, they can kill anybody."

Authorities said they were investigating whether the killing was related to the cleric's work and whether he was a victim of drug traffickers. Police said they were also taking a close look at the priest's personal life.

State police spokesman Filiberto Martinez said Velazquez was not suspected of being involved in narcotics trafficking, but that the execution-style killing and the .38-caliber handgun used were the calling cards of the drug cartels.

"Castro Trenti says this murder will be solved. But it's too soon to say when," he said.

The police statement inspired little confidence among residents. Some noted that many killings go unsolved and said police often claim victims were involved in the drug cartels as an excuse not to investigate the crimes thoroughly. "What are the authorities doing?" read a sign carried by parishioners at a funeral procession.

Most of the year's killings have been blamed on drug cartels battling for control of the trafficking corridor through Tijuana into the U.S.

Velazquez was described as a dynamic priest with a jovial personality who easily navigated Tijuana's disparate worlds of wealth and poverty. His role model, parishioners and fellow priests say, was Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, slain while celebrating Mass in 1980.

He was committed to social causes and founded an outreach group in poor neighborhoods. His sermons touched on current events and corruption, but he steered clear of politics, parishioners said. Many angrily dismissed media reports that said Velazquez might have been involved in organized crime.

Parishioner Gerardo Rodriguez, 49, said Velazquez was always on the go, fiercely focused on helping the poor, counseling couples, fundraising and building the church.

"He was mobbed up all right, mobbed up with God, and the community," Rodriguez said.

Velazquez, a native of Guadalajara, was a seminary student and missionary in Mexico City and New York City before he moved to Tijuana, where he became a priest in 1988. Within a few years of his arrival at the parish of Santa Maria Reina, in an upper-middle-class area in the hills above a country club, the one-room church overflowed with members.

Velazquez broke ground two years ago on a new church, and was only a few raffles and fundraisers away from the finishing touches: heavy, engraved wooden doors and two statues to flank the entrance.

People came from all over to hear his sermons, a blend of religious and social commentary, said parishioners and priests. "His motto was, 'Carry a newspaper in one hand, and a Bible in the other -- reality and the word of God,' " said Jesus Lara, who led Velazquez's outreach group.

Velazquez was a trailblazer in many ways, said Father Florentino Durazo, who heads a theological school in Tijuana. Velazquez celebrated Mass in the streets and spoke strongly against social injustice, he said. Velazquez believed that marriage was the foundation of a caring and just society, Durazo said, and was well known for helping couples solve relationship problems.

"His death is a terrible wound for the church," Durazo said. "He inspired so much enthusiasm, and now the community is suddenly left without him."

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